Used car tips?
April 25, 2010 11:14 AM   Subscribe

I'm thinking of buying a used car. Assuming that I know nothing about cars, what should I watch out for so I don't end up with a lemon?
posted by fizzzzzzzzzzzy to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Try to buy the lowest milage car you can. It will likely sill be under a factor warranty if it is below 40,000 miles or so. Some of the Korean makes (like Hyundai) were offering a 100,000 mile warranty for a while.

Focus on specific manufacturers and models with good reliability records. Consumer reports has a list every year. Find a friend with a consumer reports subscription or web password. has great pricing information.
posted by Mid at 11:46 AM on April 25, 2010

Growing up, my parents got stuck with a total lemon, and began to follow the recommendations of Consumer Reports religiously. In the past 20 years, none of us have ever had a bad car by sticking with what they recommended. (Membership is cheap enough, but chances are that a friend or family member already subscribes.) They do long-running surveys of owners of every model from every year, so even if a reliable model had a bad year, they'll be all over it.

CarFax is also helpful. (I think they have competitors that presumably do just as well. It's been years since I was playing this game.) At $20/report or so it was expensive, but it's worth it for the peace of mind. (Or the "Egads, this car was flood-damaged, repossessed, and in a serious accident?")

Being a skeptic who's mildly frustrated with the process worked well for me, too. I was nice and perhaps a touch naive, but I twice got up and walked out when I thought I was being taken for a fool. ("What's that? The car that I know has sat on the lot for three months and that needed to be jump-started when I went to test-drive it has someone else who plans to buy it today? But a mere $1,000 deposit reserves it as mine? Eff that, tell them to enjoy their new car.")
posted by fogster at 11:48 AM on April 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

Japanese cars have a fantastic reputation for wearing like iron and tend to be a good buy if you're looking for a used car. I had a Honda that gave me no problems for almost 14 years until a tree fell on it, and that car lived a rough life.

Have a mechanic look at the car. Get a Carfax report. Save yourself some trouble and avoid buying a car with a salvaged title--people will try to convince you that it doesn't mean anything bad (and sometimes it doesn't), but it often means that the vehicle has structural damage from an accident and will crumple in unexpected ways should you get into another.

Find out if the owners kept paperwork on any service done to the car. It's one thing to say that the timing belt was just replaced, something else altogether if there's documentation to that effect.

If you find a car that you like, do a quick Google search for the model, year, and the word "problems." Look at as many results as you can to get a feel for potential problems endemic to a particular year. They may have been dealt with by the owners already. Also check to see if there were any manufacturer recalls on that model and if the owners followed up on them.

Avoid mentioning that you don't know a lot about cars.
posted by corey flood at 11:48 AM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

What b1tr0t said. If you don't already have a repair shop you trust, ask a personal acquaintance who has lived in your city for a while and owns a well-maintained old car for a recommendation.
posted by box at 11:50 AM on April 25, 2010

Have a mechanic look at the car. Get a Carfax report. Save yourself some trouble and avoid buying a car with a salvaged title--people will try to convince you that it doesn't mean anything bad (and sometimes it doesn't), but it often means that the vehicle has structural damage from an accident and will crumple in unexpected ways should you get into another.

Seconding this. Even if it's not a salvaged title, watch out for any car accident that shows up on carfax where the car had to be towed away, particularly one where the damage occurred at the front end of the car.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:23 PM on April 25, 2010

I had a great experience with CarMax. I kept looking on their site until they had what I wanted locally (a Toyota with manual transmission).
The transaction was painless (they don't haggle on price).
Friends who have gotten cars from CarMax have been happy as well.
posted by easilyamused at 12:36 PM on April 25, 2010

Ask to see the title. Look it over carefully to make sure it was never a salvage, rebuilt, or reconstructed car.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:37 PM on April 25, 2010

You're getting some good tips here. You might also want to browse the shelves at a big bookstore. There are many ways to buy a lemon.

In your situation the most important single thing you can do is to have your prospective vehicle checked out by a skilled mechanic before you buy. Better, take it to a dealership and get a repair or maintenance quote. They may over-diagnose problems, but let the seller find that. You can be sure they won't miss anything major.
posted by LonnieK at 12:59 PM on April 25, 2010

CarMax is also not a bad option. No haggling is worth something, especially if you don't know anything about cars. Don't let them buy your old car -- they lowball trade-ins. Sell it yourself, if you can manage it, and get 20-25% more than you'll get any other way.
posted by LonnieK at 1:04 PM on April 25, 2010

Let me provide a different take on this.

In a perfect world, of course you'd want to take it to a mechanic and verify the car before you purchase it. If you're dealing with a used car dealer, it's not that tough, but cars from used car dealers cost an arm and a leg. If you're buying from a friend? Certainly a possibility. I mean, it's safe, non-controversial advice. Eat your vegetables, take your vitamins.

But the thing that nobody ever talks about is that the best deals to be had on used cars are on Craigslist or in the classifieds, and that it can be unbelievably difficult or impossible to get someone selling their car on Craigslist to let you take it to a mechanic before the sale. If you don't find the right car the first time out, paying a mechanic a hundred-some dollars multiple times to evaluate different cars gets expensive in no time. And, well, it's *not* no time -- it actually takes a lot of time.

So let's be realistic. If you're looking at cars less than $5000 or so -- and you can find very nice cars on Craigslist for less than $5000 in most places -- chances are that a Craigslist seller will spend around an hour with you, maybe two if you're clearly interested. You don't have hundreds of dollars or the time to blow on mechanics' evaluations -- that's why you're looking at used cars, right? What do you do then to make sure you don't get a lemon?

1) Before meeting with the seller, get the VIN and run a Carfax. Don't waste your time if they won't send you the VIN, it's a salvage, or if anything makes you uncomfortable on the Carfax. Research the forums for the car you're interested in to see if there are any known issues, and how to see if the issue has or hasn't been fixed.

2) Take a friend or spouse to the sale to offer a second set of eyes.

3) When meeting in person, walk around the car and look for the following:
- Panels that are a slightly different color or have a different finish than other areas of the car.
- Knock on the panels to check for panels that should be metal but aren't.
- Check for rust spots, especially near the underbody.
- Tire tread is acceptable, and that the tires match and have reasonably even wear.
- Open and shut each door and the trunk, checking for rust or repainting on the inside and that the hinges are OK. Lock each door manually and make sure the locks work.

4) Get in the car and turn it on
- Does it turn over right away?
- Does it idle normally for several minutes?
- Do any dummy lights come on?
- Turn on and off each and every function of the car. Lights, brights, blinkers, dome lights, front wipers, rear wipers, brake lights, radio, tape, CD, air conditioner, heater, return air, console lights, and anything else you can find. Have your friend stand outside while you turn things on to confirm, and have them poke around, too.
- Check to see if the seat adjustments on each seat works, and that the seat belts operate normally.
- Check the glovebox for maintenance records.
- Does everything... smell OK?

5) Turn off the car and pop the hood
- Do the belts look OK?
- Is the oil level OK?
- Are the fluid levels OK for any fluids that are reasonably easy to check?
- Have your friend turn on the car. Does the engine turn over reasonably? Any leaks? Any squeals? Any rattles? Any smoke? Any awful smells?
- Have your friend give it some gas and run it at a high RPM for a minute or two, and check the above, and then look under the car for leaks, rust, smoke and anything else out of the ordinary.
- Check in the engine compartment (and doorjambs) for any maintenance record stickers.
- Finally, check any remote-start or remote-access features.

By this time, you should know whether or not the car is reasonable. Some issues should preclude a sale, but minor issues -- old tires or dead lights -- should be known about but are easily fixed. If there's anything that seems major or that you're uncomfortable with.

6) If things seem reasonably OK, test drive.

- Turn on the engine and listen as you shift into each of the gears. Try backing up the car first.
- Test the brakes, at varying speeds on a sidestreet. Do they feel right? Any squealing?
- Make sure you turn both left and right.
- Take the car on a highway if you can, and take it up to 80. Listen/feel for rattles. Evaluate performance and road noise. Will the car drive straight if you take your hands off the wheel? Try the brakes.
- Take the car on a bumpy road. How is the suspension?
- Do a U-Turn, preferably in both directions.

Once you're done, ask your friend if there's anything they've noticed. If you're not comfortable, walk.

If you're comfortable, now is the time to haggle. Chances are you found a few things that are out of sorts, and you can use those to negotiate. Double-check that the seller has the (clean) title there with them and two sets of keys. Drive to the bank with the seller in the car.

If you buy, schedule an appointment with your mechanic for a few days after you buy the car to fix the minor things you found, and to look with an expert eye for anything you might have missed.
posted by I EAT TAPAS at 1:04 PM on April 25, 2010 [43 favorites]

There are a few things that you can do that will help reduce the possibility of making a poor purchase choice. Ideally, it helps to know your way around automobile mechanics. Not to perform repairs per se (but it can help), but more so that you can have a general understanding about what can go wrong, and why with any automobile. If this is beyond what you would care to do, or know, then either find a reputable mechanic or an especially mechanically inclined partner and keep them close to your heart. As with all things concerning knowledge, the more you have the better. More important is knowing when you don't have enough and finding someone who does. Here are some basics that can apply to every car.

1) The quality of of cars generally is much improved over 10 or 15 years ago. They're safer, and drivetrains (engine, transmission etc) are better built, so higher mileage isn't as much of an issue (with some caveats) as it was in the past. These are not your father's (or grandfather's) ford or chevy, so excluding specific brands because you know someone who had one 20 years ago that was rubbish is short sighted, and more than a bit silly. Shop by your price range, and then features, and then go from there.
a)Caveats on mileage; as a rule 100K miles of mostly highway driving is better on a car than 50K miles of mostly stop and go urban driving. The next time that you drive through a city, try and keep count of how many times you have to start and stop over say, a 20 minute period. No do the same thing when you hop on a highway. Accelerating and decelerating a 3,000 lb + car is stressful (hence your reduced gas mileage in the city) and every mechanical part on a car has a finite life before failure, no matter if its a Corolla, a Civic or an F150. understand this, and your used car owning life becomes that much less expensive.
2)Unless you can afford the cost of ownership (insurance, and more importantly maintenance costs) of a luxury car (BMW, Lexus, Porsche, etc) when it is new, you should avoid buying one that is used, with one exception (see below). Luxury cars by there nature are even more complex than their (now rather technologically complex in their own right) less expensive counterparts. There is a reason why historically you could get airbags, ABS and every other high tech (for their time) safety and convenience feature on a top line Mercedes Benz or BMW years before other manufacturers; For the person who can spend 50K + on a car, cost is less of an object, so they're fine with $125 dollar an hour repair costs. That you are considering a used car indicates that cost is something if an issure, be it due to outright cost, or (if you're like me) you would rather not have a monthly car note. Mercedes Benz does not discount parts and labor because you decided to buy a 5 year old E class. Indeed, my friend who owns a late 90's MB E class Turbo Diesel Wagon knows this first hand after spending over $1000 dollars to repair the windshield wiper motor ($700 for the part, plus labor). He can afford it, and regrets nothing about his purchase (having had no orther issues to date). If you can't afford high parts and labor costs, move on. Unless....
a)You buy a car just off lease. This is an awesome way to buy a used car. Since it was a lease all maintenance was included (dramatically reducing issues with people who are too foolish to follow recommended maintenance schedules), and more importantly, most "certified" used cars come with a warranty. Add to the fact that buy buying a car just off lease (typically 3 years old) you have avoided the absurdly dramatic depreciation in value that every car goes through within the first 12-18 months after purchase. This is perhaps your best way to go, if you can afford it.

3)If you're looking to spend less, then you have to resort to more of the kicking tires kind of hands on research. Ideally either take your mechanic or mechanically inclined partner with you, or even better, take the car and put it on a lift. Look at the suspension and the general condition of the undercarriage. While the car is on the lift check the tires for uneven wear. Its ok to buy a used car (especially in a private sale) that needs tires; It is not ok to buy a car that needs tires due to poor suspension (read: potentially very expensive repair) condition. Check the belts on the engine, check the fluids. Maintenance records are a big plus, but recognize that outside a newer used car perhaps only 2 out of 10 people keep track of their paperwork for maintenance. most importantly, start the car up and drive it. Get it on the highway and suss out what it needs (this is where having a mechanically inclined person with you is advantageous). Use this info to negotiate a better price or to walk away. Get a car fax report, understanding that car fax reports can miss a lot, but can still be helpful. A Carfax report will only know about things that are officially reported (insurance claims, accident reports, title transfers etc) and even then it can miss issues. Another important thing to look at is the overall condition of the paint, and interior. If the person keeps a messy car, its at least a coin toss as to if they care enough to follow basic maintenance. And when you look at a particular model car, have a good idea what the typical selling price is of identical models of like age, mileage and condition. If the price of a used car seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Good luck, and my apologies for my long windedness!
posted by chosemerveilleux at 1:05 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

b1tr0t: 6. Never buy a car that has been titled in New Jersey or Florida.

Not to derail but this is a new one on me. Why's this?
posted by jet_silver at 1:21 PM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fantastic advice here. I'd add: beware of too low mileage. I believe the average standard mileage is 7-12k a year. So a model year 2000 would have about 70-120k (many will have much more than that). Beware of a car with much less than that standard because it likely won't have had the oil changed often enough, or seen for tune ups often enough. Most service on a vehicle is based on mileage OR time, whichever happens sooner. And almost everyone forgets about the time aspect. Rubber oxidizes, belts crack, brake fluid goes bad, corrosive compounds are formed in the engine from sitting around. I've had 3 cars that were literally from little old ladies, all had way less mileage than standard, and ALL were problematic, and I'm talking about Hondas and Toyotas.
posted by gofargogo at 3:11 PM on April 25, 2010

6. Never buy a car that has been titled in New Jersey or Florida.
posted by b1tr0t at 3:06 PM on April 25 [+] [!]

As a former auto insurance adjuster in Florida (and licensed in 13 other states), I think the words you are looking for are "Texas" and "Mississippi." These are the states where you go to launder "salvage" titles back into standard titles, after a vehicle has been totaled in an accident or flood. It is legal to retain salvage and repair the vehicle, but in most states the title must say "salvage" for the rest of the life of the vehicle. Texas and Mississippi are the two main states that allow "salvage" titles to be "rehabbed."

In terms of buying a used car, I have always bought cars from individuals. Basically, the person is the product, as much as the car. Do you trust them? Would you leave your kid at their house for the weekend? Would you let them house-sit for you? Would you let them drive you on a 200-mile car trip? Would you eat food prepared by them? If you can generally answer yes to these questions, and you like the car, you are probably ok.

I have bought really high mileage cars from people who were confident that what they were telling me about the car was true. Those cars were great. I have bought lower mileage cars from people I thought were shifty, and those cars fell to pieces quickly, but not so quickly they didn't cost me $1,000 in repairs first. Both were top quality make and model cars, but one had been well cared for, the other abused.

Take a good look at the seller, then look at the car.
posted by toodleydoodley at 3:50 PM on April 25, 2010 [5 favorites]

A "friend" of mine (read ex-boyfriend's amusing roommate) who has been fired from more used car companies than I care to count, gave me a list of things to check/important things to consider when buying a used car. It will not guarantee a good buy & I'm sure doesn't cover everything, but makes for a good starting point.
1. Trust your gut; bombard them with questions.

2. Green, yellow or red in the radiator is antifreeze. If you open the radiator and only see "water," it may indicate a recent topping up. Find out why.

3. Smell the dipstick for transmission fluid. It SHOULD NOT smell burnt.

4. Open the trunk & examine the interior for signs of trunk repair.

5. While trunk is open, check for spare. Check spare for air. Also check for water damage inside the trunk. (This may indicate a leaky trunk --which I can tell you from personal experience is a pain in the butt. It is also apparently very difficult to repair correctly.)

6. Tires are often replace, but check for wear: Evenness of wear (as opposed to one side or the other being more run down), damage, tire plugs. The general rule of thumb for "adequate" tread (as opposed to decent or good) is that if you insert a penny, the tread will at least overlap the President's head.

7. Test horn, lights, all blinkers, hazards & brake lights.

8. Test all locks.

9. Be particularly attentive to power windows. In our area, a car won't pass inspection if the windows won't raise or lower. Roll all four up AND down at once. They should all move at about the same pace. Slowness, hesitation or extra noise can all indicate potential window failure.

10. If the car has power mirrors, make sure they work.

11. Make sure all the instrument lights work.

12. Roll up the windows & turn on the air. Check cold AND hot.

13. To check a car for water damage, move the seats and look under them for signs of rust. Smell the carpets: You're looking for fishy or moldy smells. Rust can be painted over & carpets can be replaced, but not everybody bothers to hide these telltales.

14. If the car is "cold" (not recently turned on), idle it for 5 minutes. Any smoke after 5 minutes is probably burning oil. [in a bad way.]

15. Take a test drive. While you are away on the test drive (preferrably WITHOUT the dealer), check a few more things:

16. Find a flat straightaway in a safe area and briefly release the steering wheel from your hands. A car can be mis-aligned and still drive straight, but if the car pulls to one side or other instead of continuing straight, it's a pretty good bet there's an alignment problem.

17. Even a small "jingling" noise (think car keys or bells) under the hood can indicate major problems.

18. If you have a fair amount of time on your test drive, park the car and throw a piece of cardboard under the warmed up car. Check back in a while to see what kinds of fluids collect.

19. While the car is warm & parked, pull the wheel ALLLLL the way to the left and ALLLLL the way to the right. This tests power the steering pump: Movement should be slow and fluid.

20. While the car is on, gently stuff a rag in the muffler. (We're talking just enough to cause an obstruction. Not so much you'll need a surgeon to get it out.) This is a tougher test for the untutored ear, he said, but apparently there is a certain kind of "hiss" that is normal. There's another type of hiss sound that spells trouble down the road.

21. From park, put the car in neutral. (This particular step assumes the car is an automatic, btw.) Put a foot on the brake, put the car in Drive, and _without_giving_gas_ release the brake. An automatic car should pull forward.

22. Repeat the above step in Reverse.

Also: He strongly recommended taking the time to get a "Carfax" report on any car considered. This is a name-brand documentation of the car's public history, and generally will pick up reported crashes and things like that. Your computer is your friend there. If you get it mailed to you, give it a couple days.

And: Get a warranty IN WRITING. You want at least "all externally mounted parts" (this covers alternators and other motor attachments). If you can get it, "all internally lubricated parts. That covers pistons & rods and really expensive failure points like that.

Good luck. I also like having multiple friends who know more about cars than me test drive. I just tell the dealer a friend of mine will be stopping by to see it too. They're generally OK with that.
posted by Ys at 4:07 PM on April 25, 2010 [14 favorites]

Oh, and a recent inspection sticker is nice. Because if the sticker expires next month, you may be paying for repairs sooner than you think.
posted by Ys at 4:12 PM on April 25, 2010

Just stepping in to say: don't trust carfax completely. On a whim, I ran it for my own car, which my father bought new, and which I bought for him a year ago. It didn't turn up the one accident we'd reported to both the police and our insurance - a pretty bad head-on collision. And it certainly didn't turn up the numerous accidents my pesky little brother had that went unreported to both the cops and our insurance, but which our mechanic saw.

So - carfax is good, but I don't know what info they look at. Things get missed.
posted by punchtothehead at 8:04 PM on April 25, 2010

One other thing: all of my best used-car experiences (I'm 33, I've owned about sixteen cars in my life, and I've never had one that was less than ten years old) have come when I bought the car from someone I knew personally. It's not always possible, but if you get a chance to buy a car from someone you have a preexisting relationship with, take a good look at the deal.
posted by box at 8:17 PM on April 25, 2010

What's the budget? You can go to a big lot that sells new & old, and get a certified late-model used car.

Or, you can put the word out to friends and family, visit small car lots, search, ebay and craigslist for cars that are the size you want. Take any car you're serious about to a mechanic who'll put it on a lift and inspect it. Patience helps; I got my car from a posted flyer. Buyer was moving, in a hurry, and I've had it 6 years w/ little trouble.
posted by theora55 at 9:11 PM on April 25, 2010

If your budget is fairly high I would recommend considering a new car, especially if you plan on keeping it a long time. Cars are made so well these days and last so long that buying new saves you the trouble of all that research and over time you probably spend less money. Maybe.
posted by snowjoe at 7:00 AM on April 26, 2010

that buying new saves you the trouble of all that research and over time you probably spend less money. Maybe.
You would have to have a money pit of a used car to have a new car end up costing you less. A few years ago I came across a calculator of financial break even for a financed new car vs. a used car that is paid for. It took into account savings based on reduced fuel consumption of the new car vs the old, and a number of other variables. I took my current daily driver, a '93 Mercury Cougar (V-8, 150K miles, 23mpg highway) and compared it to a car I was considering purchasing at the time, a VW Jetta Sport Wagon TDI (TDI 4cyl, new, 26K as I optioned it, 40mpg minimum) With estimated gas priced at $3.50 a gallon it would still take over 12 years for me to break even and begin to save money vs the lower MPG but paid for (and in good shape) used car. I wish I could remember where I saw this calculator, but alas, I can't at the moment.
What we have to remember is that anything other than a classic collectible (a '70 hemi cuda, GTO, '67 Alfa spider, etc) car is not an investment. It is an expense. like your cable, mobile phone or internet. Your mobile phone helping you stay in touch with others or your internet allowing work from home doesn't change the fact that at the end of the day they are expenses. A car can be a smart expense, or a foolhardy one, a large or small one. But its still an expense. One chooses a new car because they want a warranty (and perceived peace of mind) or the latest safety features. But more often than not we buy a new car because we are moved emotionally to do so, not logically.
As for not having to do research when spending tens of thousands of dollars for something you're going to have to keep for more than a couple of years....well, I'll let someone else chew on that.
posted by chosemerveilleux at 4:58 PM on April 26, 2010

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